Tuesday, February 10, 2009

'Dynamite: The Story of Class Violence in America' by Louis Adamic

'Dynamite: The Story of Class Violence in America' by Louis Adamic

Reviewed By Richard Rayner, LA Times

Louis Adamic is the forgotten Boswell of early Los Angeles, perhaps the first writer to tune himself into the then-youthful city and report back. Born in Slovenia in either 1898 or 1899 (records differ), he passed through Ellis Island in 1913 and served in the U.S. Army during World War I before settling in San Pedro where, through most of the 1920s, he worked as a watchman in the office of the harbor pilot. Great ocean liners passed in front of his window, and at dusk, the wireless stations on battleships sent forth flashes of light.

It's a striking picture, evoked by Carey McWilliams, who noted that his friend Adamic was always more at home in San Pedro than in the "fleshpots of Los Angeles," then in the midst of a crazy, oil-driven boom. Yet it was Los Angeles that inspired Adamic. "He thrived on Los Angeles. He reveled in its freaks, fakirs, and frauds," McWilliams wrote.

Adamic became not only a historian and sociologist of the city, but its prophet too. It was he who first called it an "enormous village" and got at the soul of what he thought of as a bad place, "full of old dying people, and young people who were born old of tired pioneer parents, victims of America -- full of curious wild and poisonous growths, decadent religions and cults and fake science, and wildcat business enterprises, which, with their aim for quick profits, are doomed to collapse and drag down multitudes of people."

Adamic gathered his impressions in "Laughing in the Jungle," a memoir published in 1932. It was his second important book. The first, "Dynamite," appeared the previous year and was revised in 1935. This latter version has just been reissued, with a foreword by labor historian Jon Bekken.

"Dynamite" -- subtitled "The Story of Class Violence in America" -- had a troubled route to publication. Adamic originally intended to tell the story of the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times, an act of terrorism that killed more than 20 people. Two brothers, James and John McNamara, were found guilty, and Adamic saw in this drama a microcosm of the social and economic forces that in the early 20th century brought Los Angeles, and parts of the country at large, to the brink of socialism and revolution. He unearthed a great stack of material, reconstructed the saga detail by detail -- and then failed to publish all his findings.

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